I loved Sleep No More. I proselytised about it to my wife, who doesn’t follow Doctor Who. I made her watch it. I probably dropped horrendous knowing hints to friends – “Next Saturday’s is amazing” – and awaited the happy revelation for everyone that this series was just getting better and better…
This review is from DWM #494.
Starting out as a proper Doctor Who fan in the early 1980s – as opposed to a mere viewer, which I’d been since birth – I got stuck into the required reading. That being Peter Haining’s Doctor Who: A Celebration, published in 1983. Within, there was a reference to evil Tlotoxl from The Aztecs, which mentioned he ‘wins the day’. This set fire to my imagination, and for years I longed to see the striped-mouth blackguard at work. I could think of no more exciting a premise for a villain than one who actually gets away with it.
In the decades to come, I trust Gagan Rassmussen – whose unconventional eyewear is a satisfactory update of the high priest’s lipstick smear – will also enjoy such notoriety. That, for the few seconds and finger-strokes it’ll take the new enthusiast to get Sleep No More streaming onto their device, the lusty prospect of a baddie victorious will fill their soul. He deserves that, at the very least. For his story (and it is) is the best instalment so far in this year’s run. No small compliment.
Nonetheless, strictly as a high concept, for me the thought of staging a Doctor Who in the form of found footage didn’t hold the allure of, say, the upcoming one-hander, Heaven Sent. Certainly in cinema, it’s a device that now feels indicative of a lack of imagination. A phrase that, when Mark Kermode is forced to reference it in the précis to one of his reviews, is done with an audible shift in buttocks. However, back in our realm, there was something else I hadn’t considered. The two most important words in Mark Gatiss’ pitch: ‘Doctor’ and ‘Who’.
Brought into the Doctor Who milieu, found footage becomes something hugely invigorating. A new way to experience the show and also usurp its conventions. Witnessing the components of an adventure from the inside looking out is such a basic inversion, but one that pays dividends. For example, it’s a novelty to meet the Doctor and Clara as strangers, rather than in our usual role as their complicit, silent companion. First we hear their conversation floating down a corridor, then we see her from the back, and finally him. They’re not given their usual hero shots, no imbued stature, no definitive ‘take’ on what’s happening. It makes it all the more enjoyable when they still rise to dominate proceedings. An affirmation that the Time Lord doesn’t need such editorial advantage.
It’s also a fun way to run the show out on a different set of rails, and see how it gets on. Nowadays we’re used to Murray Gold’s lyrical scores signalling tonal shifts and connoting varying significances (his ‘A Good Man’ track, for example, telling us that something extremely Doctorish is occurring) but there’s very little of that here. The musical soundscape is mostly subterranean, with weird noises that emerge into a near-melody toward the story’s end – around the same time it’s becoming apparent that this supposed reality is still as conspired as any fiction. But the Doctor isn’t diminished by the starkness. Again, without the obvious bias of the production, without even his theme tune, he can do it.
Which leads me to consider the use of sound in general. Although the visuals are where the stylistic innovation is most apparent – and obviously I’ll bang on about that shortly – it’s worth pointing out the audio is amazingly well judged. There are shifts in volume and cadence as we switch viewpoints, which are subtle, but add a massive amount in selling the conceit we’re in that space. A swivel of the head is accompanied by a tilt in the soundscape. It’s masterful work, an almost subliminal way to immerse us into the action. A Bafta Television Craft award for this, please.
While we’re giving praise to the folk who never get the convention invitations, also a word to whomever was looking after continuity. By that, I don’t mean continuity in the call-back-to-Frontios sense. I’m talking about the task of ensuring movements and appearances remain consistent in the finished show, despite disparate set-ups. Poor continuity could have totally killed this story, with a half-resolved gesture juddering us out of its reality. But, unless you spotted something I didn’t, every tiny moment joined beautifully to the next. A grand achievement, especially in consideration of what is often a mad flurry of activity on screen.
Because, yes, on occasion the ‘helmet-cam’ sequences were a little disorientating. For example, I didn’t quite catch what was going on first time around when Rassmussen was absorbed by a Sandman. However, I felt that was as it was supposed to be. Please don’t think I’m so in love with this story that I’m refusing to land any real complaints (it’s possible, though). I genuinely enjoyed the chaos. The feeling of knowing something horrible had happened but not quite catching what, fed into the terror. Into the impression of being there.
It’s not all shaky-cam. Director Justin Molotnikov has obviously worked hard to vary the pace and visual texture, cutting between POV, black and white fixed CCTV and Rassmussen’s confessional. And interlaced within is tremendous detail. We’re used to TV shows throwing up superfluous graphics and glitches in the presentation of ‘footage’, but this is Doctor Who, it doesn’t end there. Not only does the early sequence of cod-code resolve into an acrostic of the show’s title (a most satisfactory way of getting that in), but it turns out that in the end, those tiny spates of onscreen interference, which seemed to be there just for verisimilitud, are the most important detail of all. Rassmussen’s signal coming out of the noise.
It’s so, so ingenious. And an indication of something else too. That character’s utter brilliance. Rasmussen wins! Granted, a large part of that is in the framing. It’s his story, and all the way along he makes it plain he’s fashioning everything we’re seeing, so it does have something of that brand of autobiography in which the author gives us situation after situation in which they have the last laugh. But in case that hasn’t weighted things enough in the mad scientist’s favour, he also adds an additional layer of editorialising with his commentary.
“You must not watch this!” he commands as it begins, the greatest inducement he could possibly offer to make us do just the opposite. But this direct address is not only arresting, it’s playful. “I’ve put things together into some kind of order so you can understand,” he continues. “So that you can have some kind of idea. There are bits missing. Sorry about that.” In both script – which creates a febrile tension between the past-tense commentary and the as-it-happens material – and Reece Shearsmith’s brilliant, roving portrayal, Rassmussen spars with the viewer. “Ah, this is where I come in,” he says in voiceover when his hideout in the Morpheus pod is discovered.
Better yet, Rassmussen knows how we’re watching the story, our minds always jumping to the meta-narrative; those plot and production conventions that also shape an adventure. “Oh, I’m not dead,” he offers, pretty much at the exact moment smart aleck dads at home are loudly cogitating how can he be narrating this if…? “You’ve probably guessed that by now.” The masterstroke, however, is when the camera adopts Clara’s point of view after she’s been inside one of the pods. My initial reaction, while I still believed in the helmet-cams, was that the show had let us down, and it was now flouting its own rules. Did that bring me out of the story? Perhaps it did, a bit, which was a little unfortunate. But the satisfaction in later discovering the joke was on me, and that there was an ingenious narrative reason for the new angle, outweighed any interference I’d experienced in my enjoyment. Go back, watch it all again (which you should if you haven’t) and you notice that we were never spun a lie on this matter. “Everything you’re about to see is from their individual viewpoints or taken from the station itself,” says our host. The word ‘camera’ is never mentioned.
We’ve long since been schooled that the Doctor is always the smartest person in the room, but I don’t think that’s the case here. Or, maybe – as before – that’s not the way it is in Rassmussen’s edit. When he says, of the Time Lord, “Anyway, you’ll see, he had a theory,” it’s a lovely way to undermine him. It made me think how many Doctor Who stories invest absolute faith in the leading man’s deductions. Almost all of the time, when he’s given to postulate, that then becomes the definitive interpretation of the plot (to wit: The Silurians outwitted you even after you’d massacred them, so now you’re a prisoner on the ship you hijacked!). I was so wrong-footed by the final revelation here of how the Sandman contagion was really transmitted, it took me a good few minutes to process the magnitude of that. The Doctor’s hokum turned out to be just that.
It’s a mammoth twist. That’s because, if we strip down Sleep No More to its essentials, it’s basically that. A tale of the unexpected. The found footage element is wonderful, but it’s more an aesthetic component – albeit an extremely useful one. Not only does it mess about with the mores of a Doctor Who, it also acts as a distraction from the adventure’s true shape. Appearing like a means to an end all of its own, the form allows Gatiss to conceal what he’s truly up to. Here was the real plan: to place the Doctor and Clara into some other show, an anthology series, in which Reece Shearsmith, of TV’s Inside No.9, is the star. This was all done without their knowledge, of course. Upon arrival, they went with the flow and, despite a few irregularities (“It’s like this is all for effect… like a story”), it seemed as if it was job done by the end. You know, the usual: contagious spores of monsters originated from hot-housed eye-gunk being burned up by Neptune’s atmosphere.
Even now, they’re none the wiser.
Meanwhile, bouncing across the solar system, Rassmussen’s final testimony: “I do hope you enjoyed the show. I did try to make it exciting. All those scary bits, all those death-defying scrapes. Monsters, and a proper climax with a really big one at the end.” The final words, there, of the man who outwitted the Doctor and served us up a fantastic value-for-money yarn at the same time. So do as he suggests when he faces his own oblivion. Let’s give him and his Sandmen a life beyond the single 45-minute slot. Tell all your friends and family. This one deserves it – let’s send it viral.